Natural Advantages

A civic tech acquisition; social media news consumers; and more.

  • A job for civic tech: Ian Bogost writes in The Atlantic of all the ways—from Uber and Lyft to Juul and Bird that “Technology services are systematically, if invisibly, eroding long-won victories in public safety.” All the cases he cites involve tech privateers who have delivered a service that may convenience individuals (private taxis that arrive at the touch of a button! scooters lying around your doorstep, fully charged!) but in the process have run roughshod over common-sense regulations that generally protect the public.

  • CivicPlus, a provider of website services to more than a thousand city and county governments in the US and Canada, has acquired SeeClickFix, Andrew Westrope reports for Govtech.

  • The Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group and researchers from UCLA have announced Nationscape, a massive new public opinion survey designed to capture the complexity of how Americans feel about politics today. The online survey will interview approximately 6,250 Americans each week leading up to Election Day 2020.

  • Attend: Tonight CivicTech Toronto is hosting Skaidra Puodziunas and Marsha Drucker of, respectively, the Ontario Digital Service and Fuckup Nights Toronto to talk about what you can learn from failure through a government lens.

  • Life in Facebookistan: The New York Times’ Charlie Warzel argues that Facebook doesn’t have to do anything to tip the scales to hurt Elizabeth Warren‘s presidential campaign. The issue isn’t that the platform has now chosen to let presidential candidates pay to spread lies across its advertising platform; the issue is that Facebook’s algorithm intrinsically promotes engagement over all else, giving “a distinct natural advantage to those who distort the truth and seek to divide.” This is a pretty trenchant charge (and one that YouTube is vulnerable to as well.)

  • It’s worth remembering that in 2016, in the last three months before the election, the top-performing false news stories on Facebook (like the Pope’s supposed endorsement of Trump) outperformed the top real news stories, in terms of the total number of shares, reactions and comments, as Craig Silverman reported for BuzzFeed News a week after the election.

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been hosting dinners and informal get-togethers with a host of conservative commentators over the last few months, Natasha Bertrand and Daniel Lippman report for Politico.

  • Media matters: After vastly inflating viewership metrics on online videos, causing a huge shift in the media ecosystem (which later led to a collapse of many online brands), Facebook is now offering to pay $40 million to customers who paid for ad time on those videos, Todd Spangler reports for Variety.

  • Related: Given how the business model of online platforms—addictive engagement plus selling of targeted user data—has disrupted and undermined the health of local news, polluting the civic discourse—Craig Aaron of Free Press says its time to kill two birds with one stone, and tax targeted online advertising to fund local journalism.

  • Fifty-five percent of Americans say that social media platforms deliver a worse mix of news to them, Pew Research Center reports. More than half of US adults get news from social media often, up from 47% in 2018. The make-up of social media sites’ news users also varies considerably. Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are predominantly female, while Reddit is heavily male. Snapchat and Reddit trend youngest, while LinkedIn and Facebook trend older. Nonwhites dominate Instagram and Snapchat. And LinkedIn, Twitter and Reddit have the highest percentage of news consumers with college educations.

  • Will Oremus shows how Pinterest has avoided the problems with platform design that have plagued many other big tech players.

  • Yecchh, continued: Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said last month that he didn’t have “any business relationship or friendship” with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, but this story by Emily Flitter and James B. Stewart of The New York Times shows beginning in 2011 (three years after Epstein’s guilty plea for sexually soliciting underage girls) Gates met with Epstein multiple times, including at his Manhattan townhouse, and Gates Foundation staff had several meetings with Epstein as well.

  • It’s Jeff Bezos‘ world, we just happen to live in it, Franklin Foer suggests with a tour-de-force profile of the Amazon mogul for The Atlantic.

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